Conversational Capacity & The Pursuit Of Technical Excellence
Some organizations consistently achieve technical excellence; many more do not. Why? With technology advancing at an ever-accelerating rate – and as the cost of getting it wrong makes it ever more important to get it right – this is a critical question for any technology-based organization. And while there are many contributing factors, there’s one pivotal aspect of technical excellence that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
This missing piece of the puzzle is the conversational capacity of the organization – the ability of individuals and teams to orchestrate open, balanced, responsibly rigorous dialogue about tough problems and in challenging circumstances. It’s a vital competence. A team with robust capacity can address its thorniest issues with a powerful combination of low defensiveness and high learning. Conversely, a team with low capacity, dogged by the enfeebling combination of high defensiveness and low learning, can see its performance derailed by a minor difference of opinion.
What distinguishes people and teams with high conversational capacity is the ability to work in “the sweet spot” – that productive place where candor and curiosity are in balance, and the conversations are open-minded, even-handed, evidence-based, and learning-focused. It is in this sweet spot where the best work gets done – especially when we’re up against tough issues and complex problems.
But while simple in concept, balancing candor and curiosity is surprisingly difficult in practice, for under pressure we tend to drop one pole or the other. When we drop candor we grow overly guarded and cautious – we don’t speak up when we should. When we drop curiosity we grow arrogant and argumentative – our minds slam shut and our mouths fly open. All too often we see both reactions at once as some people heat up and argue while others shut down and retreat.
This tendency is important to recognize because performance plummets anytime we trigger out of the sweet spot. The president of a small college in Canada, for example, explained how low candor sabotaged a big project. “We blew $20 million on a failed transfer of a student database that we had to scrap mid-implementation due to problems,” he told me. “I found out later half the IT team knew it was never going to work but were fearful of engaging with the CIO since she was the executive sponsor and this product had been her choice.”
This example illustrates the important link between conversational capacity and technical excellence. It doesn’t do any good to have A-grade technical minds on your project if the way they work together produces mediocre or failing technical performance. When their capacity is lacking, a team full of brilliant people can’t put their heads together to solve tough problems because they lack the ability to get their smarts out of their heads and into the problem solving process in a concerted and constructive way. Even more disturbing, if their conversational capacity is too low, their smarts can actually become an impediment to learning.
In my book, Conversational Capacity, I tell the story of a person with a sharp technical mind, unencumbered by curiosity, and his corrosive impact on a project:
“One person with a strong “win” tendency can dumb down an entire team of smart people if they lack the capacity to deal with his behavior. I saw this demonstrated in a team at an engineering firm working on a project beset by daunting technical hurdles. But this team’s biggest problem wasn’t technical; it was their inability to deal with Doug, the smartest engineering mind on the program and a person with a fanatical need to get his way. Doug’s take-no-prisoners behavior was emboldened by his stellar academic background, his deep well of experience, his encyclopedic memory, and his sharp, analytical mind. To top it all off, he also had a quick tongue and booming voice.”
“Doug used all of these factors like a bludgeon to beat others out of discussions and decisions. He dominated meetings with his shock-and-awe conversational style, which included shutting down his teammates, interrupting people with views that competed with his own, and escalating the intensity of his response if a “wrong” view was gaining ground. The team was so browbeaten by Doug’s fierce behavior that his mere presence killed the team’s conversational capacity.”
An important aspect of technical excellence, therefore, isn’t technical at all. It’s the task of building our organization’s conversational capacity, for it unlocks the learning potential in our relationships, meetings, teams, and projects. Enabling us to think smarter, faster, and together in difficult situations, it strengthens our ability to make smart decisions, solve tough problems, capitalize on opportunities, and respond to change in more agile, deliberate, productive ways. It is for this reason that one client in a high-risk technical business – a utilities company – sees the building of their organization’s conversational capacity as its primary risk management strategy.
So technical leaders take note: the higher the risk, the more complicated the challenge, the more critical the need for technical integrity, the more important it is to ensure your organization can work in the sweet spot under pressure. Our world is growing more technically complicated and there is a pressing need for people who can address their toughest challenges in a rigorous, constructive, and collaborative way. Learning to balance candor and curiosity under pressure is central to meeting this need. We can have everything else in place – the best people, strategies, processes, and resources – but if the conversational capacity of our project or team is inadequate, it will still underperform when it counts. A primary task for technical leaders, therefore, is building this capacity.
So, to inspire some inquiry and dialogue, let me provide a few questions for you and your colleagues to consider:
- Where does the conversational capacity of your team, program, project, or organization need improving?
- On a scale of 1 – 5, how would you rate the capacity between people, functions, or groups that need to work together well to achieve critical objectives?
- Do people see the answers to the questions the same way? If not, what are the underlying reasons for their contrasting perspectives?
- In places where the ability to work in the sweet spot is lacking, what would it take to move it from poor to good, or from good to great?
- And, most importantly, what can you start doing to make a constructive difference?